Show us the money

Pub date August 7, 2007
WriterBilly Jam
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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By 9 a.m. on July 28, 13-year-old Bay Area music-star hopeful Nyles Roberson, accompanied by a support group that included his mom and two other family members, had secured a coveted position at the very front of the line outside the doors of the Oakland Convention Center. A full 25 hours later, the doors would finally be opened by the producers of Showtime at the Apollo, who, visiting from New York for the day, would hold this year’s only West Coast auditions for the long-running American talent show that has, over a historic 73 years, launched the careers of such legends as Billie Holiday, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Usher, and Lauryn Hill.

In the next 28 hours, another 374 Bay Area Apollo hopefuls, 75 of whom would be turned away, would patiently fall in line behind Roberson, who goes by the stage name Yung Nittlz. And the music that Yung Nittlz would be performing? You guessed it: rap with a distinctly Yay Area feel. In fact, the majority of those assembled, many of whom had traveled to the large venue adjacent to the Oakland Marriott from all over the Bay after hearing about the tryouts on KMEL, would perform some form of hip-hop, mostly of the popular, homegrown hyphy school.

"There was a lot of rappers to choose from … even more than I expected," chief Showtime at the Apollo judge Vanessa Rogers said following the intense day of some 300 auditions, which wound up at 7:30 p.m. after each act had gotten about 90 seconds to show their stuff. For close to a decade, Rogers has been tirelessly judging thousands of performers for the famed weekly Apollo amateur night, both on the road in select US cities such as Houston and Detroit and back home in Uptown Manhattan. In May, at the most recent tryouts at the Apollo Theater, on 125th Street in Harlem, she judged another 300 hopefuls.

On the morning of the Oakland audition, GGH (Girls Gone Hyphy) from Fairfield jockeyed for position in line and were soon assigned audition number 262. The three confident, upbeat teens — Felicia, Tajarae, and Tajaniique — would dance, rap, and sing over a track produced by one of their moms. "We’re already getting famous. Most of our families are already there," Tajarae said, noting that among the trio’s extended family in the local rap industry are San Quinn, Black C, and Shag Nasty. Farther up the line — which was about 95 percent African American — that snaked down Oakland’s 10th Street was another 707 area code rap artist, Semaj (James spelled backward), who later accompanied himself on keyboards as he spit his original rhymes. In the meantime, East Bay MC Antonio (real name: Mario), who was number five and close to the top of the long queue, took the bold step of performing an a cappella rhyme that he "just wrote late last night" while waiting outside the tryouts.

Farther along the row were Trauma, a colorfully dressed 11-member hip-hop dance troupe who had driven from Stockton the day before. Also camped out from the night before were well-prepared Richmond rap crew Da Trendsettaz, accompanied by their manager-producer, Bay Area rap vet Rob J Official, ready with flyers and promo CD-Rs in hand. With a median age of 18, the quartet’s Mister Trend, Digg, Sticky, and Blank-Blank would pack a lot into their allotted 90 seconds: dwarfed by the cavernous venue and decked out in oversize white Ts, they delivered their entertaining Yay Area–<\d>flavored rap "Strike a Pose" while busting carefully choreographed moves that clearly delighted Rogers and the other two judges from New York, show producer Suzanne Coston and video tech person Joe Gray.

First, however, was Roberson, or rather, Yung Nittlz, waiting at the top of the line and ready to perform for the three judges. Citing fellow Berkeley High School students the Pack as an inspiration, the extremely ambitious and multitalented ninth grader looked older than his years — he writes all of his material and makes his own beats, boasting two albums’ worth on his MySpace page. Before the panel of judges, looking not at all nervous, the teen confidently performed his song "Money in the Air," adding a little carefully planned flavor midway through by throwing in the air a fistful of cool-looking promotional play money — oversize, full-color $5 bills with his image and contact info strategically positioned on both sides, designed at home on his computer.

The next day Roberson was feeling satisfied with the whole experience. "I thought the auditions were great…. I gave 110 percent and I felt like the judges liked my song," he said by e-mail — naturally — adding that "my dream and my goal is to get a record deal." Whether he’ll make it to the Apollo stage this fall remains to be determined. Rogers, who described the Oakland Apollo tryouts as "challenging" (seemingly because of the disproportionate amount of nonrappers the Apollo likes to showcase), said there were about seven acts she was pretty sure were ready for the big time but that her team would need a few weeks to carefully study the tapes back in New York before deciding who would make the trip from the Bay to Showtime at the Apollo.<\!s>*